One of the stealth high points of last year’s TV season was the launch of “Good Girls” on NBC, a show that garnered decent numbers if little buzz.
That surprised me, because it’s precisely the kind of show that should have generated a response on social media — both funny and deeply serious in what it had to say about female friendships, bad relationships, good relationships, money worries, the overwhelming work of motherhood and everything in between.
A few weeks ago I started seeing a number of people tweeting about the show — even though it hadn’t been on the air for 10 months. Why? Because as of January, the first season is available on Netflix. Suddenly people who had been unaware of the show (or simply missed it among the deluge of other shows) were watching. And liking it. A lot.
Season 2 returns Sunday on NBC — which might come as a surprise to anyone who found the show on Netflix and assumed it was a Netflix original. It’s not.
But the confusion is understandable. It’s not often you see non-canceled network shows on Netflix. More on that in the moment. First, let’s talk about the show itself, because if you haven’t been watching, you’ll want to fix that.
Here’s the premise: Three women in desperate financial straits turn to crime and rob a grocery store — a scheme they manage to pull off, but turns out the store is a front for a money launderer (whoops) who is not pleased. And with whom they become increasingly entangled.
Starring Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”), Retta (“Parks and Recreation”) and Mae Whitman (“Parenthood” and “Arrested Development”), the vibe in the early going had something in common with the 1980 movie “9 to 5” — explicitly told from the point of view of women who are exhausted and enraged and sick of a system rigged against them. So wrung out that they’re willing to break a few laws if it means balancing the scales a bit.
Call it suburban noir — but also funny. Oddly, a number of early reviews had a problem with that combination. You know what’s interesting? I never saw the same criticism leveled at a male-led show like “The Sopranos,” which had an enormous amount of comedy threaded alongside its darker storylines. But at least one critic writing about “Good Girls” suggested it needed to “pick a lane.”
It doesn’t. You’ll have no problem digesting the drama along with the show’s comedic sensibility. This is what the show’s creator Jenna Bans told Variety: “What always strikes me as funny is the absurdity of real people in really absurd situations. So I thought if I could make these characters as grounded and real and interesting as possible and just throw them into these heightened situations, they’ll do the rest.” She’s right.
And the cast is terrific. Hendricks proved her drama chops as Joan on “Mad Men,” and here she plays a woman who snaps out of the fog of a bad marriage (Matthew Lillard plays her husband) and asserts herself as the unofficial leader of their tiny band of outlaws. At the same time, she also finds herself unexpectedly attracted to the crime boss making their lives hell (played brilliantly by Manny Montana — the sexual tension between him and Hendricks jumps off the screen).
Whitman is also a practiced hand at drama, but she subverts that somewhat here; she’s playing a woman who can never quite get it together. It’s a brash and wonderfully human performance. (Her on-again/off-again ex is played by Zach Gilford of “Friday Night Lights.”)
But it is Retta who is a revelation. That she can be brilliantly funny is a given, but on “Good Girls” she’s given room to build a character with depth and nuance, often saying so much without even uttering a line. She happens to be in the only healthy romantic relationship on the show (“Mike & Molly’s” Reno Wilson plays her husband) which is complicated by the fact that said husband is also a cop.
And as the TV critic ReBecca Theodore-Vachon noted on Twitter a few weeks back: “Not once is Ruby’s (Retta) weight mentioned. She is written as a complex, three dimensional character with a loving husband who treats her like a queen. Other prime time shows could learn from this.”
So if “Good Girls” was renewed for a second season on NBC, how and why did the first season end up on Netflix?
You might assume it’s because ratings weren’t through the roof and NBC wanted to build interest in the show ahead of its new season, so: Netflix. Sounds smart.
And it is — but that’s not quite how it worked.
A little background: Some TV shows on a network are made by outside studios. “This is Us” is NBC’s top show and it’s made by 20th Century Fox Television. Other shows, like “Good Girls,” are produced by NBC’s sister studio — Universal Television — which means NBCUniversal (which includes the broadcast network and Universal Television) is the show’s owner, rather than the buyer. And that gives NBC flexibility to experiment with where viewers can find it.
Universal Television already has a relationship with Netflix. (Universal makes “Russian Doll,” for example.) According to NBC, early on in the “Good Girls” development process, Netflix knew about the show, expressed interest and wanted it as an original. NBC wanted the show for itself. So Netflix struck a deal with the broadcaster: NBC gets the series first (along with nbc.com and Hulu) and Netflix gets second-window rights — and all of that was negotiated before a single episode even aired.
The hope, obviously, is that there will be increased interest in the show going into Season 2 when it airs live on NBC each week.
But NBC will be just as happy if the show is watched in the “urgent viewing window” — within seven days after an episode airs — on Hulu (NBC owns a 30 percent stake). For cable subscribers, the broadcaster also makes its shows available for free on nbc.com as well as the NBC app (neither of which are ad-free).
Per NBC, all of that viewing data is analyzed and conveys information about a show’s value — and if there are substantial numbers of people watching it on Hulu and nbc.com, it absolutely can extend the life of critically acclaimed but low-rated shows.
Let’s look at another NBC show as an example: “The Good Place,” starring Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, is one of the first the network tried this with, though Netflix came into the equation later in the process.
Here’s how it worked: After so-so ratings the first season, the whole thing was made available on Hulu and nbc.com — and according to NBC, there was a huge spike in digital viewership for the show.
A year later, the first season went to Netflix, where it had the same trajectory. (Though Netflix doesn’t make viewing numbers public, there are third-party services like Nielsen that offer their own ball-park figures.)
Making “The Good Place” available on various streaming platforms has meant more people know about the show, more people like the show, and therefore more people are seeking out new episodes going forward.
That doesn’t mean they’re watching live, though.
The “Live + Same Day” ratings have actually gone down over its three seasons (meaning, people watching live, plus delayed DVR viewing up until 3 a.m. the same night) but here’s the interesting part: NBC says viewer numbers have gone up significantly on its digital platforms (nbc.com and Hulu) during that seven day period after an episode airs.
More viewers are watching then ever — they just happen to be using one of the streaming platforms to do it. Because that’s how an increasing number of people watch TV.
Here’s one more wrinkle: NBC just announced that it has plans to launch its own standalone streaming service in 2020 that will offer both new and library content from NBC, as well as its cable channels including USA, Bravo and SyFy. Does that potentially mean that in the future NBC shows such as “Good Girls” will no longer be available on Netflix?
Comcast owns NBCUniversal, and earlier this week Comcast CEO Brian Roberts told media analysts that the company doesn’t plan to follow Disney’s lead by pulling all of its content from Netflix — or what he called going “cold turkey and taking it off all these other platforms. I don’t think that’s our mindset at the moment. We like those relationships.”
For the new season of “Good Girls,” you can watch it live at 9 p.m. starting Sunday. Or a day or so later on nbc.com. Or on Hulu, which will have the five most recent episodes. And yes, Season 2 will likely make its way to Netflix next year — and if it gets picks up for a third season, the cycle repeats.